The Louisiana Sugarcane Industry has now completed 229 years of commercial sugar production. Considering it’s the northernmost sugarcane growing region in the world, that’s certainly something to be proud of. Growing a tropical crop in Louisiana’s temperate environment has always been a challenge. Success hasn’t come easy. We are thankful to the dedicated scientists, engineers, inventors and other men and women who have helped to continuously improve the Louisiana sugarcane industry. Our ancestors, who recognized the potential of this unique crop, would marvel at the modern-day sugarcane farm operating with the help of advanced tractors, sprayers, harvesters and other implements, cell phones, computers, digital sensors, aerial images, GPS technology and drones to name a few.
By Herman Waguespack Jr.
Director of Research, American Sugar Cane League
It’s likely that the words DRY and HOT would be used more than once if anyone involved in agriculture were given a chance to describe the year. Adequate moisture, a critical component to maintain good sugarcane growth, was in short supply over much of the cane belt. It was a difficult adjustment for many sugarcane operations to receive so little rain. Irrigation water was provided where available, but many farms had so little moisture that their cane grew less than half as tall as normal. Across the state, yields were highly dependent on the amount and timeliness of rainfall received during the growing season.
The information in Chart 1 shows rainfall data for several locations in and around the Louisiana sugarcane growing region. Normally these locations receive more than 60 inches of rainfall during the year, but all the sites recorded significantly less rain than normal for the year. The most severely stressed regions only received about 38 inches of rainfall which is about 37% less rain than normal. The other locations received slightly more rainfall (44 to 49 inches) but still had about 30% less rainfall for the year.
Chart 1: 2023 Rainfall totals and long-term average rainfall for select Louisiana locations.*
*Data source: Louisiana Office of State Climatology https://losc.climate.lsu.edu
Growers were also faced with record hot temperatures in late July and August across the region. Several operations reported planting cane at night to escape the excessive daytime heat. Table 1 shows the total and consecutive days with 100o F. temperature recorded for select locations in and around the Louisiana sugarcane growing region along with the highest daytime temperatures and rank (1939-2023). Most locations reported daytime high temperatures 100o F. (or more) for at least half the month of August with Alexandria reaching this threshold for 45 days during July, August, and September. The western and northern stations (Lake Charles, Lafayette, Alexandria, and New Iberia) recorded the hottest daytime temperatures (109o-110o F.). 2023 ranks as the hottest or second to hottest year for these Louisiana locations.
Table 1. 2023 days with 100o F. temperature recorded for select Louisiana locations.*
|Total days (100o F.+)
|Consecutive days (100o F.+)
|Highest temp. Recorded (o F.)
*Data source: https://extremeweatherwatch.com based on NOAA data (1939-2023).
The state average yield results were 32.41 tons of cane per acre, but there was a wide range of yields. It stands to reason the areas that remained extremely dry during the growing season had lower than average cane yields, but remarkably, other areas that received timely rainfall had exceptional yields. Some farms in these areas harvested record high yields even though rainfall totals were well below normal for the year. Growers who had the ability to irrigate their fields generally reported favorable results from these areas. These yields are a testament to the resilience of the Louisiana sugarcane crop. It’s interesting to note that although sugarcane is a tropical crop and is ideally suited to areas with high rainfall and warm growing conditions, it can perform better than other crops in dry conditions. Our variety development program has developed varieties that are uniquely adapted to our less-than-tropical growing conditions.
The United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency reports an increase of more than 21,000 sugarcane acres compared to last year with 533,731 total acres for Louisiana. This marks the eighth straight year of acreage expansion and historically the most acres ever devoted to sugarcane production. Most of the new acreage has been planted in the Bayou Teche and Northern regions, but growers across the cane belt have successfully extended their crop cycle to routinely include third and older stubble in their farm management plan. The latest sugarcane variety survey reported almost a quarter of the acreage in this older stubble category.
This favorable statistic is primarily due to the excellent ratooning ability of the state’s major variety, L 01-299. Growers have come to trust L 01-299 with the majority of acres, varieties like HoCP 96-540, L 01-283, HoCP 09-804, Ho 12-615 are also used on the balance of available land. Growers also report expanding acres of newly released varieties HoCP 14-885, L 15-306 and HoL 15-508. With the release of 7 new varieties over the past 5 years, growers now have many options and are well equipped to take advantage of the strengths of each variety throughout the 24 parishes with commercial sugarcane production.
Louisiana sugarcane and sugar beet growers and processors joined forces for the annual Washington D.C. fly-in exercise to help educate congressional leaders in support of United States sugar policy. Since U.S. sugar policy operates at no cost to the government, industry members have a great story to tell. A strong sugar policy has contributed to stable raw sugar prices and is cited as a major influencer of industry expansion. This has been a key factor as growers and mills make long term management decisions. Although profit margins have been chiseled by steady increases in production costs (especially labor), industry members have welcomed the opportunity to enhance efficiency with improved field equipment, greater processing capacity, improved automation and other new milling technology. Efforts to reduce pressures of increased labor costs continue to command the attention of farm and mill managers.
The House and Senate ag committees worked on new agriculture and nutrition spending legislation but ultimately resorted to an extension of the 2018 farm bill legislation until September 2024. These negotiations were overshadowed by opposing views on several agriculture issues including improvements to the farm safety net and funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spending. Additionally, the October vote to remove Representative Kevin McArthy as speaker of the house delayed further progress on any new legislation. After weeks of negotiations, Louisiana’s own Mike Johnson finally received the necessary votes to fill the vacant speaker of the house position and moved quickly to craft a two-tiered continuing resolution to temporarily fund several important programs (including agriculture) through mid-January and other programs through February 2, 2024. Bipartisan support in the House and Senate will be crucial to this new year congressional appropriations challenge.
Clarification to the definition of the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule came in August when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a final rule to change portions of the revised definition that was ruled invalid. The definition of WOTUS determines what water bodies can be protected by the clean water act. This is the fundamental federal law regulating water pollution across the United States. The definition has been a hotly debated topic causing much angst among many major farm groups and landowners. The EPA also introduced a pilot workplan regulating pesticide use and registration to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 with the intent of conserving threatened and endangered plants and animals. This has already impacted the registration review of several key sugarcane pesticides and will likely impact all pesticides used in our crop.
The 2024 crop year will certainly have its share of challenges, but just as in past years, the industry will work together to successfully turn these events into opportunities for the advancement of our great industry. It’s the resiliency of the Louisiana sugarcane industry that has elevated it to the number one row crop in the state. It’s no wonder acreage is expanding; sugar prices are steady and positive industry development is forecast. As we look forward to another year of production let’s all hope it is another successful one.